ICRC seeks Syrian prison access on its terms

GENEVA Wed Nov 2, 2011 9:49pm GMT

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Red Cross is pressing Syrian authorities for wider access to thousands of detainees arrested in pro-democracy protests, while insisting that its own strict terms be met, its president said Wednesday.

In an interview with Reuters, Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), said that the independent humanitarian agency would assess its role after an upcoming visit to a detention centre in Aleppo.

Syria opened its prisons for the first time in September, allowing ICRC officials to visit Damascus central prison which has 6,000 inmates, but that is the only facility the Red Cross has seen. Activists say 30,000 people have been arrested in the seven-month uprising against President Bashar al-Assad's rule.

"I have always made clear, also when I was (there) again in September with President Assad that yes, that this is the test phase, a first phase, but after that we want to go further," Kellenberger said in an interview in his Geneva office.

"I would like to see now how the next visit will go, that would be Aleppo, in order to see a little bit if we have understood each other well," he added.

He declined to reveal specifics, but said that there were unresolved issues with Syrian authorities over the terms of ICRC visits. The agreed initial phase of visits was limited to Damascus and Aleppo, he said.

"We will certainly have a thorough examination internally after this first phase on the merits of our visits," Kellenberger said.

"I have to say that the first visit has shown still that we need to talk to each other in much more detail" about the terms of the visits, he said.

"Nobody has such (high) standards as we have," he said.

Under its standard terms worldwide, the ICRC demands full access to all detention centres, the right to interview prisoners of its choosing in private and to make follow-up visits.

Syria has agreed to withdraw its military presence from cities and residential areas and to releasing prisoners as part of an Arab initiative to end violence, the Arab League said in a statement Wednesday.

It was not immediately clear how many prisoners might be affected by the move or the timetable of the release.

The United Nations says 3,000 people have been killed in what it calls "ruthless repression" of anti-government protesters that could drive the country into full-blown civil war.

Syrian army deserters killed seven soldiers and eight members of the security forces and gunmen loyal to President Assad in an apparent response to the killing of 11 villagers earlier Wednesday, an activist group said.

Activists say people have been rounded up and are being held in makeshift detention centres including schools.

"We have big concerns. But I meant the fact is we are the only ones who are in a position, who are accepted to do this work," Kellenberger said. "The big challenge is to try to see these people."

"I am aware that there will be places where it would be even more urgent that we can go than the places where we go now," he added.

Kellenberger also said that those wounded in the violence do not appear to have full access to medical treatment, as required under international humanitarian law.

The ICRC has previously said it had reports of doctors, ambulance workers and other health-care workers being prevented from performing their life-saving tasks of evacuating the wounded and providing first aid and medical care.

"One of the main reasons I went in September to see President Assad was to make clear that every person is entitled to access to medical care. It was a major concern, in fact it was one of the elements triggering the visit," Kellenberger said.

"We have even talked about certain measures that have to be taken to make this access easier.

"But from the news I have, I do not have the impression that the problem is solved, unfortunately...Everything indicates it remains a big problem," he said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

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